Joseph McGill

Joseph McGill is the founder of The Slave Dwelling Project. I interviewed him at the Magnolia Plantation and Gardens in Charleston, South Carolina.

Ten years ago, Joe started spending the night in historic slave quarters and has slept overnight at more than 150 such sites across the country. He uses the experience to talk about the importance of preserving these historic structures so that we may have full and honest conversations about our country’s history.

“When you’re uncomfortable, that’s when the learning starts.”

Joseph McGill
Joseph McGill interview
Joseph McGill, founder of The Slave Dwelling Project, in the first slave quarters he stayed overnight in after founding the organization, located on Magnolia Plantation in Charleston, South Carolina.
The first slave quarters where Joseph McGill spent the night for The Slave Dwelling Project, at Magnolia Plantation.

We spoke of the genesis of his project, the resistance he has faced in his efforts, and the small artifacts he discovers that remind him of his ancestors and his need to elevate their stories.

Joe spoke of the fingerprints he finds in the bricks used to construct the slave dwellings. If the enslaved people removed the bricks from their molds before they were fully dried, their fingerprints would embed in the brick for all time. He calls them the echoes of former lives and he seeks them out. Because of Joe’s story, I knew to look for those imprints when I visited Fort Sumter later in the week and with the help of the interpretive staff, was able to find an example. It made me wish we could know the full story behind these prints.

Discussion questions:

-Have you ever been uncomfortable at a historical site?

-What helps you bring history to life?

-Would you sleep in a slave dwelling? Why or why not?

-Was your historical education well balanced, or were there narratives that were missing?

-What do you understand about race that you didn’t grasp ten years ago?

-What are you doing currently to expand your understanding of the modern day ramifications of slavery?

6 thoughts on “Joseph McGill

  1. I visited Sotterley Plantation in 2019 and stepped into the world of my 2x great grandmother, a slave there just before emancipation. She was most likely a cook or other domestic who married another slave, their names and owners recorded in the Maryland State Archives.
    The small cabin brought immediate feelings of dread and oppresiveness. Dirt floors filled with oyster shells for drainage, a single small door, barely my size, a window with no coverings. I cried. Just four generations, 160 years ago from poverty and total inability to read, to having a master’s degree in higher education. It is all too stunning a journey with many twists and turns. Ten years ago, I had her name and no other information. Now I have her life story and her descendents….how they “got over” and made a way out of no way.

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